2014 NFL DRAFT TEAM SPOTLIGHTS: ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN | CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND | JAC | KC | MIA | MIN | NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | OAK | PHI | PIT | SD | SF | SEA | STL | TB | TEN | WAS
This is the 28th of a team-by-team series, analyzing five prospects that each team should consider in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Coming off a disastrous season, the Falcons have the sixth overall pick and plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball. In the Thomas Dimitroff/Mike Smith era, Atlanta has selected in the top 10 twice and both times worked out pretty well: QB Matt Ryan (third overall, 2008) and WR Julio Jones (6th overall, 2011).
It's no secret that the Falcons would like to move up and find a way to secure South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney (who wouldn't?), but the asking price to move up to the No. 1 pick is likely to be too rich for it to happen. Buffalo's Khalil Mack could be on the board, but chances are he's gone as well, forcing Atlanta to switch gears to the offensive side of the ball to address the tackle position, another vital need. And with a draft class that offers three offensive tackles worthy of a top-six pick in the draft, there's an above average chance one will be available for the Falcons at No. 6.
But the Falcons need to hit on more than just the sixth pick. The roster has several holes that could use upgrades and Dimitroff/Smith need to have another haul like 2008, their first in Atlanta, when they landed reliable players like LB Curtis Lofton, WR Harry Douglas and DE Kroy Biermann after the first round.
Atlanta Falcons' 2014 draft picks: 6, 37, 68, 103, 139, 147, 182, 220, 253, 255
Primary Needs: OT, DE, RB, FS, OLB
General Manager: Thomas Dimitroff, 7th season
Head Coach: Mike Smith, 7th season
Five draft picks that clicked:
• WR Julio Jones, 6th overall, 2011
• SS William Moore, 55th overall, 2009
• QB Matt Ryan, 3rd overall, 2008
• DE Kroy Biermann, 154th overall, 2008
• WR Roddy White, 27th overall, 2005
Five players who should be on Atlanta's draft radar:
(overall rating, position rating)
OT Jake Matthews, Texas A&M (5, 2): Assuming the Falcons stay at pick No. 6 instead of trading up for Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack, Atlanta will presumably target an offensive tackle to help protect Matt Ryan. And there might not be a safer, more reliable selection than Matthews, who brings 46 career starts in college between left and right tackle. He is a coordinated athlete with smooth body control and natural balance and is a true technician with high football smarts. Matthews was born to play on the offensive line as the game appears to come easy to him with natural bloodlines. He isn't the longest, strongest or meanest and there isn't much flash to him, but he gets the job done. Matthews was often tested in space and for extended periods of time blocking for Johnny Manziel the past two seasons, but he was always under control and a substantial reason behind several big runs. His “Steady Eddie” approach and versatile skill-set to play any offensive line position makes him an attractive prospect for every team, especially Atlanta.
DE Kony Ealy, Missouri (35, 3): If Atlanta doesn't address the pass rush in the first round, there's a good chance they do in the second round with the 37th pick. Ealy had his best season in 2013 as a junior, finishing second on the Tigers behind Michael Sam in sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (14.5). He has NFL size, build and length, working hard to fill out his frame with an all-around ability reminiscent of a first round player. Ealy has active hands, but doesn't use them correctly, allowing him to be neutralized at the point of attack. He displays very smooth athleticism for his size with the movement skills and pass rush athleticism to disrupt the pocket from the edges or kicked inside as a 3-technique, but still very raw in several areas, mostly his instincts and recognition skills. Ealy might need some time to adjust to the NFL game, but presents a good value in the second round.
RB Charles Sims, West Virginia (117, 9): The Falcons need to add another running back to the stable and Sims would be an excellent addition with his ability as a ballcarrier and pass catcher. After transferring from Houston for his senior season, he led the Mountaineers in rushing in 2013 with 1,095 yards on the ground. Sims played receiver as a prep player before moving to the backfield as a senior in high school and prides himself on being a reliable option either running or receiving. He has good vision to see the hole and hit it, wasting little time getting north-south, as he lacks the explosive feet to beat defenders with shifty moves. Sims isn't overly creative as a runner and lacks natural power, but shows some similarities of a poor man's Matt Forte with his one-cut, upright running style and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He will likely be around for the Falcons pick in the early fourth round.
DB Antone Exum, Virginia Tech (172, 24): The “other” cornerback at Virginia Tech, Exum's senior season was derailed after an off-season ACL injury, but he has the skill set to play either free safety or corner in the NFL and will be an excellent value in the fourth or fifth round. Exum has an impressive physique for the position and passes the eye test, but he lacks elite speed and often finds himself trailing with his back to the line of scrimmage. His aggressive nature is both his best and worst quality, getting physical and bloodying his nose, but sometimes too early or too late. Exum has starting traits, most likely in a free safety role at the next level, but the durability is the mystery element to his evaluation, coming of a serious knee injury.
TE Crockett Gillmore, Colorado State (139, 7): It's impossible to replace Tony Gonzalez on the depth chart, but the Falcons drafted Levine Toilolo in the fourth round last season to possibly assume that role in 2014. And regardless if he's ready for the full-time job, tight end depth is a direction the Falcons could address on the draft's third day. Gillmore has added nearly 50 pounds since high school, but needs to continue and get stronger and mature physically. He is tall, long and smooth and appears very natural in his movements, tracking and extending well with very good hand-eye coordination to make the tough grabs (doesn't always look pretty, but he gets the job done). Gillmore needs some time to refine the details of his game, but projects as a quality NFL contributor and back-up tight end with the development traits worth a pick.